Human certainty comes from what we can really know, but in practical matters there are a lot of unknowns. Real certainty is found within those limits, within the terms set for us by our actual lives. When it comes to limits, we first have to be reconciled to the inscrutability of human affairs. In a given situation, there are any number of ways that you can legitimately act. And with each of these ways, there are potential consequences, both good and bad. Once you begin to entertain all of these consequences, the prospect of making a decision may become overwhelming.
For instance, let’s say that a friend recently hosted you for the weekend while you were in town for business. You are grateful and want to communicate that. You could buy her a little house plant, for instance, or give her a gift certificate to a local restaurant. In truth these are both good options. But might there not also be unforeseen complications that render them unfitting? On the one hand, she might be hyper-pragmatic and see a house plant as just something else to take care of in her already busy life. On the other hand, she might see a gift certificate as evidence that you’re not comfortable receiving without repaying, causing her to question the authenticity of the friendship.
So, what do you do? Get bent out of shape at the thought that she might be less than pleased and choose to do nothing? No. The point is that you do something that expresses your appreciation and attempts to deepen your friendship. Depending on how well you know her, you might be able to anticipate potential sensitivities, but you also might not. You can only act on what you can know. You are not responsible for reading her mind, and it’s not reasonable to expect that of yourself. What is reasonable is that you act virtuously. Provided that you do, you can be certain that the act is good. Might it have bad consequences? Perhaps, but truth be told, that’s not your business.
Even though human affairs are inscrutable, we have what we need for choosing well. Prudence sees to that. First, it gathers the variety of our moral experience, drawing upon our successes and failures and taking its cues from law and grace, custom and culture. Then, it condenses that experience into a rough working model, one reflecting what happens always or for the most part, which then serves as the basis for present and future endeavors. This working model gets the job done as well as it can be done. Errors crop up, but they’re rare. In the case of selecting a gift for your host, your response is shaped in part by your virtuous formation, by the setting in which you live, and by the peculiarities of this particular friendship. For most people, a small gift will do the trick perfectly. Every once in a while, you’ll be thrown for a loop, but you needn’t brace yourself against that chance occurrence. You take it in stride.
Practically speaking, we cannot live in perpetual fear of the consequences of our choices, nor permit them to keep us from acting. Negative consequences will inevitably arise from our decisions. This is especially true when it means confrontation with another person. Perhaps you are thinking about suggesting to your friend that he see a counselor or therapist, but what if he takes it the wrong way? Or maybe you are thinking about alerting your boss to some financial irregularities, but what if some of your colleagues get fired? What do you do?
If you are dedicated to living in truth and abiding in love, it’s practically guaranteed that you will upset other people. That’s very stressful, but it shouldn’t keep you from acting. You are genuinely able to testify to the truth and encourage others in virtue. You may be uncertain of your ability to do so, but you can’t let that get in the way. With each interaction of this sort, you can simply ask yourself: “Does this actually matter? Can this actually change? Am I actually motivated by love?” If the answer to those questions is yes, then it’s just a matter of timing. Do your best, and don’t beat yourself up if the other person reacts poorly.
Over the course of a lifetime, interactions like this should get easier, and occasions of stress and perplexity fewer. As your working model gets fine-tuned, it draws more readily from a richer store of experience. This isn’t simply to say that by experiencing more things, you will automatically become more prudent. There are plenty of “experienced” people who live imprudently until their last breath. . . . What is important isn’t so much a breadth of experience as a depth of experience. The prudent individual might never leave his zip code, but he can nonetheless discover what is in the heart of man. So, while he might not see everything there is to see, he can come in time to experience everything there is to experience. With that comes a greater moral certainty, even in difficult encounters. That is what lies in store. That is what is expected of us.
Check out our interview with Fr. Gregory Pine, “What Good is Prudence?” here on Catholic Exchange. Listen below and find Catholic Exchange on Apple, Google, Spotify, or on your favorite podcasting app.